Circus Of Horrors
Directed by Sidney Hayers
Starring Anton Diffring, Erika Remberg, Yvonne Monlaur, Donald Pleasence, Jane Hylton, Kenneth Griffith, Conrad Phillips, Jack Gwillim, Vanda Hudson, Yvonne Romain, Colette Wilde
Lynx Films/Independent Artists/Anglo-Amalgamated 1960
Dr. Rossiter, a gifted if somewhat maverick plastic surgeon, is on the run after his work on Evelyn Morley Finsbury has gone awry. She has been missing following her surgery. When her husband finds her, she has trashed every mirror in her room. She is horribly scarred and laughing maniacally.
Meanwhile, Rossiter drives straight through a police roadblock, before swerving off the road and down an embankment. He survives, but has sustained facial injuries. Making his way on foot to his two assistants, brother and sister Martin and Angela, Rossiter gets himself patched up before the trio take flight to France. There they come across a young girl by the side of the road: Nicole has been facially scarred by an explosion during the war, and she takes the three to her father Vanet, the owner of a derelict circus which has fallen on hard times.
Sensing the perfect cover for his ongoing experiments, Rossiter (now going under the pseudonym of Dr. Schuler) agrees to treat Nicole in return for shared ownership of the circus. A grateful Vanet agrees, but just after the deal is made he drunkenly decides to perform a celebratory dance with his performing bear. When the bear steps on some broken glass and turns vicious, Vanet is mauled. Schuler/Rossiter looks like he is about to intervene, before holding back and leaving Vanet to his grisly fate. Schuler is now in sole charge of the circus.
Heading into town for a drink, Schuler spies a prostitute named Elissa in a bar, preparing to rob a potential client (Schuler sees her concealing a knife in her cleavage). He witnesses her taking the hapless punter’s wallet in an alleyway before brutally stabbing him. As she flees, Schuler stops Elissa in her tracks. Seeing that she bears a knife scar on her face, he offers to help her both with surgery and in evading the police.
Angela questions why Schuler should want to help her. He reasons that such a person is perfect for their circus, as she will not blow their cover and will be forever indebted to the doctor. He plans to find more such subjects, to surgically heal before training them as performers. “A circus of criminals?”, asks Angela. “No”, replies Schuler. “A circus of beauty!”
At this point, the story jumps ten years, and the glamorously transformed circus arrives in Berlin. Angela, who has been hopelessly in love with the doctor since the film began and beyond, now finds herself marginalised, whilst Martin has been essentially reduced to assisting Elissa, who has honed an impressive aerial rope act in the intervening years. Elissa’s not happy at playing second fiddle to Magda von Meck, whose horse-riding act involves riding through an archway made from razor-sharp swords.
Magda has decided to leave the circus, to marry a well-off gentleman who promises a life of luxury. Schuler isn’t happy with this betrayal, and since we are led to believe that he has arranged a series of accidents for previous ingrates, Magda should be wary before engaging in her other role, as the assistant in a knife-throwing act…
There’s enough here already to fill the duration of many movies, but we’re only 37 minutes in! Proceedings now shift up another gear: Schuler takes on another performer, much to Elissa’s chagrin, and takes the show to England, where he plans to finally unveil his medical work. Martin and Angela finally pluck up the courage to turn against Schuler, the police finally twig that the series of deaths in the circus may not have been accidents after all, and a figure from Schuler’s previous life as Rossiter re-appears, leading to the film’s final showdown.
Naturally, in today’s climate the deaths in Circus Of Horrors will inevitably seem quite tame, but what is worth noting is how much it seems to focus as much on titillation by scantily-clad females as it does on shocking the audience with its gruesome deaths. It is sold just as much on sexual appeal as on its horrific elements. The blatant display of female flesh is almost as giggle inducing as it is mildly shocking in these more politically charged times.
And yet, Circus Of Horrors is still a rollicking ride. Director Sidney Hayers simply acts like the most ludicrous of plot elements are perfectly normal, and just gets on with things. This approach perhaps made him a perfect choice for helming episodes of The Avengers a few years later. Never mind that the film expects us to believe that any street criminal can be fixed-up and turned into an acrobatic performer by a deranged plastic surgeon. This is the British horror film – you either buy into it, or you don’t.
Circus Of Horrors hit UK cinemas in April of 1960, and would (no doubt to the annoyance of highbrow critics and self-appointed guardians of public morals) do very well indeed, following on from Anglo-Amalgamated's equally reviled Horrors Of The Black Museum (1959). The following month, Anglo’s next release would have considerably less in the way of good fortune. Peeping Tom would cause a critical outcry, performed badly and only got the briefest of theatrical releases before being pulled from distribution completely. A brief window of leniency from the BBFC was abruptly shut, and screen horror in the UK would be noticeably toned down for the next few years.
 To be fair, the doctor has warned Evelyn that one operation will not suffice, and that she will require several over a period of at least a year. She ignores this advice, and removes her bandages too soon. If she had listened to her doctor’s orders, the chain of events which follows might well have been avoided, but then we wouldn’t have much of a movie.
 Billy Smart’s Circus stood in for Schuler’s enterprise from this point in the film.
 Elissa’s act is accompanied by Look For A Star, as performed by Garry Mills. This saccharine ditty is played incessantly throughout the remainder of the film, an act of earworm-inducing product placement which evidently paid off: The tie-in single on the Top Rank label would reach number 7 in the UK. In the USA, it reached number 26, fighting against competition from no less than three rival versions, including one by a singer who cheekily adopted the similar-sounding pseudonym of Garry Miles.
 We don’t get to see most of these, sadly. But then, with an on-screen body count of 6 (or 7, if you include one of the circus animals) the BBFC probably felt they’d allowed quite enough.
 Reading back through this synopsis, it does strike me how ridiculous this looks on the page, and highlights how lucky Britain was to have actors of Diffring’s calibre on hand to appear in these films. Lesser talents could never have pulled them off with such élan.